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Russian language

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русский язык[1] (russkiy yazyk)
Pronunciation [ˈruskʲɪj jɪˈzɨk]
Native to Russia, other post-Soviet states
Native speakers
150 million (2010)[2]
260 million (L1 plus L2 speakers) (2012)[3]
Early forms
Cyrillic (Russian alphabet)
Russian Braille
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Regulated by Russian Language Institute[22] at the Russian Academy of Sciences
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ru
ISO 639-2 rus
ISO 639-3 rus
Glottolog russ1263[23]
Linguasphere 53-AAA-ea < 53-AAA-e
(varieties: 53-AAA-eaa to 53-AAA-eat)
Russian-speaking world
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Russian (ру́сский язы́к, russkiy yazyk, pronounced [ˈruskʲɪj jɪˈzɨk]) is an East Slavic language and an official language in Russia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan. It is an unofficial but widely spoken language in Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia, Estonia, and to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics of the Soviet Union and former participants of the Eastern Bloc.[24][25] Russian belongs to the family of Indo-European languages and is one of the three living members of the East Slavic languages. Written examples of Old East Slavonic are attested from the 10th century onwards.

It is the most geographically widespread language of Eurasia and the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages. It is also the largest native language in Europe, with 144 million native speakers in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Russian is the eighth most spoken language in the world by number of native speakers and the seventh by total number of speakers.[26] The language is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Russian distinguishes between consonant phonemes with palatal secondary articulation and those without, the so-called soft and hard sounds. This distinction is found between pairs of almost all consonants and is one of the most distinguishing features of the language. Another important aspect is the reduction of unstressed vowels. Stress, which is unpredictable, is not normally indicated orthographically[27] though an optional acute accent (знак ударения, znak udareniya) may be used to mark stress, such as to distinguish between homographic words, for example замо́к (zamok, meaning a lock) and за́мок (zamok, meaning a castle), or to indicate the proper pronunciation of uncommon words or names.


Russian is a Slavic language of the Indo-European family. It is a lineal descendant of the language used in Kievan Rus'. From the point of view of the spoken language, its closest relatives are Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Rusyn, the other three languages in the East Slavic group. In many places in eastern and southern Ukraine and throughout Belarus, these languages are spoken interchangeably, and in certain areas traditional bilingualism resulted in language mixtures, e.g. Surzhyk in eastern Ukraine and Trasianka in Belarus. An East Slavic Old Novgorod dialect, although vanished during the 15th or 16th century, is sometimes considered to have played a significant role in the formation of modern Russian. Also Russian has notable lexical similarities with Bulgarian due to a common Church Slavonic influence on both languages, as well as because of later interaction in the 19th–20th centuries, although Bulgarian grammar differs markedly from Russian.[28] In the 19th century, the language was often called "Great Russian" to distinguish it from Belarusian, then called "White Russian" and Ukrainian, then called "Little Russian".

The vocabulary (mainly abstract and literary words), principles of word formations, and, to some extent, inflections and literary style of Russian have been also influenced by Church Slavonic, a developed and partly russified form of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic language used by the Russian Orthodox Church. However, the East Slavic forms have tended to be used exclusively in the various dialects that are experiencing a rapid decline. In some cases, both the East Slavic and the Church Slavonic forms are in use, with many different meanings. For details, see Russian phonology and History of the Russian language.

Over the course of centuries, the vocabulary and literary style of Russian have also been influenced by Western and Central European languages such as Greek, Latin, Polish, Dutch, German, French, Italian and English,[29] and to a lesser extent the languages to the south and the east: Uralic, Turkic,[30][31] Persian,[32][33] Arabic, as well as Hebrew.[34]

According to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, Russian is classified as a level IV language in terms of learning difficulty for native English speakers, requiring approximately 1,100 hours of immersion instruction to achieve intermediate fluency.[35] It is also regarded by the United States Intelligence Community as a "hard target" language, due to both its difficulty to master for English speakers and its critical role in American world policy.

Standard Russian[edit]

Main article: Moscow dialect
Russian language street sign in Russia.

The standard form of Russian is generally regarded as the modern Russian literary language (современный русский литературный язык). It arose in the beginning of the 18th century with the modernization reforms of the Russian state under the rule of Peter the Great, and developed from the Moscow (Middle or Central Russian) dialect substratum under the influence of some of the previous century's Russian chancellery language.

Mikhail Lomonosov first compiled a normalizing grammar book in 1755; in 1783 the Russian Academy's first explanatory Russian dictionary appeared. During the end of the 18th and 19th centuries, during a period known as the "Golden Age", the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of the Russian language was stabilized and standardized, and it became the nationwide literary language; meanwhile, Russia's world-famous literature flourished.

Until the 20th century, the language's spoken form was the language of only the upper noble classes and urban population, as Russian peasants from the countryside continued to speak in their own dialects. By the mid-20th century, such dialects were forced out with the introduction of the compulsory education system that was established by the Soviet government. Despite the formalization of Standard Russian, some nonstandard dialectal features (such as fricative [ɣ] in Southern Russian dialects) are still observed in colloquial speech.

Geographic distribution[edit]

Competence of Russian in the countries of the former USSR, 2004

In 2010, there were 259.8 million speakers of Russian in the world: in Russia - 137.5, in the CIS and Baltic countries - 93.7, in Eastern Europe and the Balkans - 12.9, Western Europe - 7.3, Asia - 2.7, Middle East and North Africa - 1.3, Sub-Saharan Africa - 0.1, Latin America - 0.2, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - 4.1. Thus, the Russian language is the 6th largest in the world by number of native speakers, after English, Chinese, Hindi/Urdu, Spanish and Arabic.[36]

Russian is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Education in Russian is still a popular choice for both Russian as a second language (RSL) and native speakers in Russia as well as many of the former Soviet republics. Russian is still seen as an important language for children to learn in most of the former Soviet republics.[37]


Country Speakers Percentage Year Reference
 Armenia 23,484 0.8% 2011 [38]
 Australia 44,058 0.2% 2011 [38]
 Austria 8,446 0.1% 2001 [38]
 Azerbaijan 122,449 1.4% 2009 [38]
 Belarus 6,672,964 70.2% 2009 [38]
 Canada 112,150 0.3% 2011 [38]
 Croatia 1,592 0.04% 2011 [38]
 Cyprus 20,984 2.5% 2011 [38]
 Czech Republic 31,622 0.3% 2011 [38]
 Estonia 383,118 29.6% 2011 [38]
 Finland 54,559 1.0% 2010 [38]
 Georgia 16,355 0.4% 2002 [38]
 Israel[note 1] 1,155,960 15% 2011 [39]
 Kyrgyzstan 482,200 8.9% 2009 [40]
 Latvia 698,757 33.8% 2011 [38]
 Lithuania 218,383 7.2% 2011 [38]
 Moldova 380,796 11.3% 2004 [38]
 New Zealand 7,896 0.2% 2006 [38]
 Poland 21,916 0.1% 2011 [38]
 Romania 29,246 0.1% 2002 [38]
 Russian Federation 137,494,893 96.2% 2010 [38]
 Serbia 3,179 0.04% 2011 [38]
 Slovakia 1,866 0.03% 2001 [38]
 Tajikistan 40,598 0.5% 2010 [38]
 Ukraine 14,273,670 29.6% 2001 [38]
 United States 879,434 0.3% 2013 [41]



Languages of Belarus according to 2009 census (blue - Russian)

In Belarus, Russian is co-official alongside Belarusian per the Constitution of Belarus.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 3,243,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 8 million active speakers.[43] 77% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 67% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[44]


Russophone population in Estonia

In Estonia, Russian is officially considered a foreign language.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 470,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 500,000 active speakers.[43] 35% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 25% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[44] Russian is spoken by 29.6% of the population according to a 2011 estimate from the World Factbook.[45]

Ethnic Russians constitute 25.5% of the country's current population[46] and 58.6% of the native Estonian population is also able to speak Russian.[47] In all, 67.8% of Estonia's population can speak Russian.[47] Command of Russian language, however, is rapidly decreasing among younger Estonians (primarily being replaced by the command of English). For example, if 53% of ethnic Estonians between 15 and 19 claim to speak some Russian, then among the 10- to 14-year-old group, command of Russian has fallen to 19% (which is about one-third the percentage of those who claim to have command of English in the same age group).[47]


As the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire from 1809 to 1918, a number of Russian speakers have remained in Finland. There are 33,400 Russian-speaking Finns, amounting to 0.6% of the population. Five thousand (0.1%) of them are late 19th century and 20th century immigrants or their descendants, and the remaining majority are recent immigrants who moved there in the 1990s and later.[citation needed] Russian is spoken by 1.4% of the population of Finland according to a 2014 estimate from the World Factbook.[45]


Germany has the highest Russian-speaking population outside the former Soviet Union with approximately 3 million people.[48] They are split into three groups, from largest to smallest: Russian-speaking ethnic Germans (Aussiedler), ethnic Russians, and Jews.


Percent of Russian speakers in different regions of Latvia, 2011 census

In Latvia Russian is officially considered a foreign language.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 960,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 1.3 million active speakers.[43] 55% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 29% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[44] Russian is the language most spoken at home for 33.8% of the population according to a 2011 estimate from the World Factbook.[45]

Its official recognition and legality in the classroom have been a topic of considerable debate in a country where more than one-third[49] of the population is Russian-speaking (see Russians in Latvia). Due to recent high school reforms in Latvia (whereby the government pays a substantial sum to a school to teach in the national language), the number of subjects taught in Russian has been reduced in the country.[50][51]


In Lithuania Russian is not official, but it still retains the function of lingua franca.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 250,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 500,000 active speakers.[43] 20% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 3% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[44] Russian is spoken by 8% of the population according to a 2011 estimate from the World Factbook.[45]

In 2011, 63% of the Lithuanian population, or 1,917,500 people,[52] had a command of the Russian language.[53]


In Moldova, Russian is considered to be the language of inter-ethnic communication under a Soviet-era law.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 450,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 1.9 million active speakers.[43] 50% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 19% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[44] Russian is the language usually spoken by 16% of Moldovans according to a 2004 estimate from the World Factbook.[45]

Russian has a co-official status alongside Romanian in the autonomies of Gagauzia and Transnistria in Moldova.


According to the census of 2010 in Russia Russian language skills were indicated by 138 million people (99.4% population), while according to the 2002 census - 142.6 million people (99.2% population). Among the urban residents 101 million people (99.8% population) had Russian language skills, while in rural areas - 37 million people (98.7% population).[54]

Russian is the official language of Russia, although it shares the official status at regional level with other languages in the numerous ethnic autonomies within Russia, such as Chuvashia, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, and Yakutia. 94% of school students in Russia receive their education primarily in Russian.[55]


Russophone population in Ukraine (shown in red)

In Ukraine, Russian is seen as a language of inter-ethnic communication, and a minority language, under the 1996 Constitution of Ukraine.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 14,400,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 29 million active speakers.[43] 65% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 38% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[44] Russian is spoken by 29.6% of the population according to a 2001 estimate from the World Factbook.[45] 20% of school students receive their education primarily in Russian.[56]

Russian lacks the status of a state language, but still enjoys an extensive protection as a regional and minority language with some official functions.[57] The Constitution of Ukraine guarantees "free development, use and protection"[58] of the Russian language. According to a poll by FOM-Ukraine, Russian is the most widely spoken language in Ukraine understood by everyone.[59][60]

Rest of Europe[edit]

Russian minimarket in Limassol, Cyprus; translation: "Teremok market. Russian goods. Phone number: 96 74 19 63"

In the 20th century, Russian was mandatorily taught in the schools of the members of the old Warsaw Pact and in other countries that used to be satellites of the USSR. In particular, these countries include Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Albania, former East Germany and Cuba. However, younger generations are usually not fluent in it, because Russian is no longer mandatory in the school system. According to the Eurobarometer 2005 survey,[61] though, fluency in Russian remains fairly high (20–40%) in some countries, in particular those where the people speak a Slavic language and thereby have an edge in learning Russian (namely, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria).

Significant Russian-speaking groups also exist in Western Europe. These have been fed by several waves of immigrants since the beginning of the 20th century, each with its own flavor of language. The United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Brazil, Norway, and Austria have significant Russian-speaking communities. According to the 2011 Census of Ireland, there were 21,639 people in the nation who use Russian as a home language. However, of this only 13% were Russian nationals. 20% held Irish citizenship, while 27% and 14% were holding the passports of Latvia and Lithuania respectively.[62]

There were 20,984 Russian speakers in Cyprus according to the Census of 2011, accounting for 2.5% of the population.[63] Russian is spoken by 1.6% of the Hungarian population according to a 2011 estimate from the World Factbook.[45]



In Armenia Russian has no official status, but it's recognised as a minority language under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 15,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 1 million active speakers.[43] 30% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 2% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[44] Russian is spoken by 1.4% of the population according to a 2009 estimate from the World Factbook.[45]


In Azerbaijan Russian has no official status, but is a lingua franca of the country.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 250,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 2 million active speakers.[43] 26% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 5% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[44]


In Georgia Russian has no official status, but it's recognised as a minority language under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 130,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 1.7 million active speakers.[43] 27% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 1% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[44] Russian is the language of 9% of the population according to the World Factook.[64] Ethnologue cites Russian as the country's de facto working language.[65]


In Kazakhstan Russian is not an official language, but according to article 7 of the Constitution of Kazakhstan its usage enjoys equal status to that of the Kazakh language in state and local administration.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 4,200,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 10 million active speakers.[43] 63% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 46% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[44] According to a 2001 estimate from the World Factbook, 95% of the population can speak Russian.[45] Large Russian-speaking communities still exist in northern Kazakhstan, and ethnic Russians comprise 25.6% of Kazakhstan's population.[66] The 2009 census reported that 10,309,500 people, or 84.8% of the population aged 15 and above, could read and write well in Russian, as well as understand the spoken language.[67]


In Kyrgyzstan Russian is an official language per article 5 of the Constitution of Kyrgyzstan.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 600,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 1.5 million active speakers.[43] 38% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 22% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[44]

The 2009 census states that 482,200 people speak Russian as a native language, including 419,000 ethnic Russians, and 63,200 from other ethnic groups, for a total of 8.99% of the population.[40] Additionally, 1,854,700 residents of Kyrgyzstan aged 15 and above fluently speak Russian as a second language, or 49.6% of the population in the age group.[40]


In Tajikistan Russian is the language of inter-ethnic communication under the Constitution of Tajikistan.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 90,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 1 million active speakers.[43] 28% of the population was fluent in Russian in 2006, and 7% used it as the main language with family, friends or at work.[44] The World Factbook notes that Russian is widely used in government and business.[45]


In Turkmenistan Russian lost its status as the official lingua franca in 1996.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 150,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 100,000 active speakers.[43] Russian is spoken by 12% of the population according to an undated estimate from the World Factbook.[45]


In Uzbekistan Russian has no official status, but is a lingua franca of the country.[42] According to estimates from Demoskop Weekly, in 2004 there were 1,200,000 native speakers of Russian in the country, and 5 million active speakers.[43] Russian is spoken by 14.2% of the population according to an undated estimate from the World Factbook.[45]

Rest of Asia[edit]

In 2005, Russian was the most widely taught foreign language in Mongolia,[68] and was compulsory in Year 7 onward as a second foreign language in 2006.[69]

Russian is also spoken in Israel by at least 750,000 ethnic Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, according to the 1999 census. The Israeli press and websites regularly publish material in Russian.[citation needed] See also Russian language in Israel.

Russian is also spoken as a second language by a small number of people in Afghanistan.[70]

North America[edit]

The language was first introduced in North America when Russian explorers voyaged into Alaska and claimed it for Russia during the 1700s. Although most colonists left after the United States bought the land in 1867, a handful stayed and preserved the Russian language in this region to this day, although only a few elderly speakers of this unique dialect are left.[71] Sizable Russian-speaking communities also exist in North America, especially in large urban centers of the U.S. and Canada, such as New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Nashville, San Francisco, Seattle, Spokane, Toronto, Baltimore, Miami, Chicago, Denver and Cleveland. In a number of locations they issue their own newspapers, and live in ethnic enclaves (especially the generation of immigrants who started arriving in the early 1960s). Only about 25% of them are ethnic Russians, however. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming majority of Russophones in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn in New York City were Russian-speaking Jews. Afterward, the influx from the countries of the former Soviet Union changed the statistics somewhat, with ethnic Russians and Ukrainians immigrating along with some more Russian Jews and Central Asians. According to the United States Census, in 2007 Russian was the primary language spoken in the homes of over 850,000 individuals living in the United States.[72]


Australian cities Melbourne and Sydney have Russian-speaking populations, with the most Russians living in southeast Melbourne, particularly the suburbs of Carnegie and Caulfield. Two-thirds of them are actually Russian-speaking descendants of Germans, Greeks, Jews, Azerbaijanis, Armenians or Ukrainians, who either repatriated after the USSR collapsed, or are just looking for temporary employment.[citation needed]

Russian as an international language[edit]

Russian is one of the official languages (or has similar status and interpretation must be provided into Russian) of the United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency, World Health Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, UNESCO, World Intellectual Property Organization, International Telecommunication Union, World Meteorological Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Criminal Court, International Monetary Fund, International Olympic Committee, Universal Postal Union, World Bank, Commonwealth of Independent States, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Eurasian Economic Community, Collective Security Treaty Organization, Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, International Organization for Standardization, GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, International Mathematical Olympiad. The Russian language is also one of two official languages aboard the International Space Station - NASA astronauts who serve alongside Russian cosmonauts usually take Russian language courses. This practice goes back to the Apollo-Soyuz mission, which first flew in 1975.

In March 2013 it was announced that Russian is now the second-most used language on the Internet after English. People use the Russian language on 5.9% of all websites, slightly ahead of German and far behind English (54.7%). Russian is used not only on 89.8% of .ru sites, but also on 88.7% of sites with the former Soviet Union domain .su. The websites of former Soviet Union nations also use high levels of Russian: 79.0% in Ukraine, 86.9% in Belarus, 84.0% in Kazakhstan, 79.6% in Uzbekistan, 75.9% in Kyrgyzstan and 81.8% in Tajikistan. However, Russian is the sixth-most used language on the top 1,000 sites, behind English, Chinese, French, German and Japanese.[73]


Main articles: Russian dialects and Moscow dialect
Russian dialects in 1915 Other
  12. Northern Russian dialect with Belarusian influences
  13. Sloboda and Steppe dialects of Ukrainian
  14. Steppe dialect of Ukrainian with Russian influences

Russian is a rather homogeneous language, in terms of dialectal variation, due to the early political centralization under the Moscow rule, compulsory education, mass migration from rural to urban areas in the 20th century, as well as other factors. The standard language is used in written and spoken form almost everywhere in the country, from Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg in the West to Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in the East, notwithstanding the enormous distance in between.

Despite leveling after 1900, especially in matters of vocabulary and phonetics, a number of dialects still exist in Russia. Some linguists divide the dialects of Russian into two primary regional groupings, "Northern" and "Southern", with Moscow lying on the zone of transition between the two. Others divide the language into three groupings, Northern, Central (or Middle) and Southern, with Moscow lying in the Central region.[74][75] All dialects also divided in two main chronological categories: the dialects of primary formation (the territory of the Eastern Rus' or Muscovy, roughly consists of the modern Central and Northwestern Federal districts); and secondary formation (other territory). Dialectology within Russia recognizes dozens of smaller-scale variants. The dialects often show distinct and non-standard features of pronunciation and intonation, vocabulary and grammar. Some of these are relics of ancient usage now completely discarded by the standard language.

The Northern Russian dialects and those spoken along the Volga River typically pronounce unstressed /o/ clearly (the phenomenon called okanye/оканье).[75] Besides the absence of vowel reduction, some dialects have high or diphthongal /e~i̯ɛ/ in the place of Proto-Slavic *ě and /o~u̯ɔ/ in stressed closed syllables (as in Ukrainian) instead of Standard Russian /e/ and /o/.[75] An interesting morphological feature is a post-posed definite article -to, -ta, -te similarly to that existing in Bulgarian and Macedonian.[75]

In the Southern Russian dialects, instances of unstressed /e/ and /a/ following palatalized consonants and preceding a stressed syllable are not reduced to [ɪ] (as occurs in the Moscow dialect), being instead pronounced [a] in such positions (e.g. несли is pronounced [nʲaˈslʲi], not [nʲɪsˈlʲi]) – this is called yakanye/яканье.[75][76] Consonants include a fricative /ɣ/, a semivowel /w~u̯/ and /x~xv~xw/, whereas the Standard and Northern dialects have the consonants /ɡ/, /v/, and final /l/ and /f/, respectively.[75] The morphology features a palatalized final /tʲ/ in 3rd person forms of verbs (this is unpalatalized in the Standard and Northern dialects).[75][77] Some of these features such as akanye/yakanye, a debuccalized or lenited /ɡ/, a semivowel /w~u̯/ and palatalized final /tʲ/ in 3rd person forms of verbs are also present in modern Belarusian and some dialects of Ukrainian (Eastern Polesian), indicating a linguistic continuum.

The city of Veliky Novgorod has historically displayed a feature called chokanye/tsokanye (чоканье/цоканье), where /tɕ/ and /ts/ were switched or merged. So, цапля ('heron') has been recorded as 'чапля'. Also, the second palatalization of velars did not occur there, so the so-called ě² (from the Proto-Slavic diphthong *ai) did not cause /k, ɡ, x/ to shift to /ts, dz, s/; therefore, where Standard Russian has цепь ('chain'), the form кепь [kʲepʲ] is attested in earlier texts.

Among the first to study Russian dialects was Lomonosov in the 18th century. In the 19th, Vladimir Dal compiled the first dictionary that included dialectal vocabulary. Detailed mapping of Russian dialects began at the turn of the 20th century. In modern times, the monumental Dialectological Atlas of the Russian Language (Диалектологический атлас русского языка [dʲɪɐˌlʲɛktəlɐˈɡʲitɕɪskʲɪj ˈatləs ˈruskəvə jɪzɨˈka]), was published in three folio volumes 1986–1989, after four decades of preparatory work.

Derived languages[edit]


A page from Azbuka (Alphabet book), the first Russian printed textbook. Printed by Ivan Fyodorov in 1574. This page features the Cyrillic script.

Russian is written using a Cyrillic alphabet. The Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters. The following table gives their upper case forms, along with IPA values for each letter's typical sound:


Older letters of the Russian alphabet include ѣ, which merged to е (/je/ or /ʲe/); і and ѵ, which both merged to и (/i/); ѳ, which merged to ф (/f/); ѫ, which merged to у (/u/); ѭ, which merged to ю (/ju/ or /ʲu/); and ѧ/ѩ, which later were graphically reshaped into я and merged phonetically to /ja/ or /ʲa/. While these older letters have been abandoned at one time or another, they may be used in this and related articles. The yers ъ and ь originally indicated the pronunciation of ultra-short or reduced /ŭ/, /ĭ/.


Because of many technical restrictions in computing and also because of the unavailability of Cyrillic keyboards abroad, Russian is often transliterated using the Latin alphabet. For example, мороз ('frost') is transliterated moroz, and мышь ('mouse'), mysh or myš'. Once commonly used by the majority of those living outside Russia, transliteration is being used less frequently by Russian-speaking typists in favor of the extension of Unicode character encoding, which fully incorporates the Russian alphabet. Free programs leveraging this Unicode extension are available which allow users to type Russian characters, even on Western 'QWERTY' keyboards.[78]


The Russian alphabet has many systems of character encoding. KOI8-R was designed by the Soviet government and was intended to serve as the standard encoding. This encoding was and still is widely used in UNIX-like operating systems. Nevertheless, the spread of MS-DOS and OS/2 (IBM866), traditional Macintosh (ISO/IEC 8859-5) and Microsoft Windows (CP1251) created chaos and ended by establishing different encodings as de facto standards, with Windows-1251 becoming a de facto standard in Russian Internet and e-mail communication during the period of roughly 1995–2005.

All the obsolete 8-bit encodings are rarely used in the communication protocols and text-exchange data formats, being mostly replaced with UTF-8. A number of encoding conversion applications were developed. "iconv" is an example that is supported by most versions of Linux, Macintosh and some other operating systems; but converters are rarely needed unless accessing texts created more than a few years ago.

In addition to the modern Russian alphabet, Unicode (and thus UTF-8) encodes the Early Cyrillic alphabet (which is very similar to the Greek alphabet), as well as all other Slavic and non-Slavic but Cyrillic-based alphabets.


Main article: Russian orthography

Russian spelling is reasonably phonemic in practice. It is in fact a balance among phonemics, morphology, etymology, and grammar; and, like that of most living languages, has its share of inconsistencies and controversial points. A number of rigid spelling rules introduced between the 1880s and 1910s have been responsible for the former whilst trying to eliminate the latter.

The current spelling follows the major reform of 1918, and the final codification of 1956. An update proposed in the late 1990s has met a hostile reception, and has not been formally adopted. The punctuation, originally based on Byzantine Greek, was in the 17th and 18th centuries reformulated on the French and German models.

According to the Institute of Russian Language of the Russian Academy of Sciences, an optional acute accent (знак ударения) may, and sometimes should, be used to mark stress. For example, it is used to distinguish between otherwise identical words, especially when context does not make it obvious: замо́к/за́мок (lock/castle), сто́ящий/стоя́щий (worthwhile/standing), чудно́/чу́дно (this is odd/this is marvelous), молоде́ц/мо́лодец (attaboy/fine young man), узна́ю/узнаю́ (I shall learn it/I recognize it), отреза́ть/отре́зать (to be cutting/to have cut); to indicate the proper pronunciation of uncommon words, especially personal and family names (афе́ра, гу́ру, Гарси́я, Оле́ша, Фе́рми), and to show which is the stressed word in a sentence (Ты́ съел печенье?/Ты съе́л печенье?/Ты съел пече́нье? – Was it you who ate the cookie?/Did you eat the cookie?/Was it the cookie that you ate?). Stress marks are mandatory in lexical dictionaries and books for children or Russian learners.


Main article: Russian phonology

The phonological system of Russian is inherited from Common Slavonic; it underwent considerable modification in the early historical period before being largely settled around the year 1400.

The language possesses five vowels (or six, under the St. Petersburg Phonological School), which are written with different letters depending on whether or not the preceding consonant is palatalized. The consonants typically come in plain vs. palatalized pairs, which are traditionally called hard and soft. (The hard consonants are often velarized, especially before front vowels, as in Irish). The standard language, based on the Moscow dialect, possesses heavy stress and moderate variation in pitch. Stressed vowels are somewhat lengthened, while unstressed vowels tend to be reduced to near-close vowels or an unclear schwa. (See also: vowel reduction in Russian.)

The Russian syllable structure can be quite complex with both initial and final consonant clusters of up to 4 consecutive sounds. Using a formula with V standing for the nucleus (vowel) and C for each consonant the structure can be described as follows:


Clusters of four consonants are not very common, however, especially within a morpheme. Examples: взгляд (/vzɡlʲat/, "glance"), государство ([gəsʊˈdarstvə], 'state'), строительство ([strɐˈitʲɪlʲstvə], 'construction').


Consonant phonemes
Labial Alveolar
Palatal Velar
plain pala. plain pala. plain pala. plain pala.
Nasal m n
Stop p



Affricate ts
Fricative f


Trill r

Russian is notable for its distinction based on palatalization of most of the consonants. While /k/, /ɡ/, /x/ do have palatalized allophones [kʲ, ɡʲ, xʲ], only /kʲ/ might be considered a phoneme, though it is marginal and generally not considered distinctive (the only native minimal pair which argues for /kʲ/ to be a separate phoneme is "это ткёт" ([ˈɛtə tkʲɵt], 'it weaves')/"этот кот" ([ˈɛtət kot], 'this cat')). Palatalization means that the center of the tongue is raised during and after the articulation of the consonant. In the case of /tʲ/ and /dʲ/, the tongue is raised enough to produce slight frication (affricate sounds). These sounds: /t, d, ts, s, z, n and rʲ/ are dental, that is pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the teeth rather than against the alveolar ridge.


Main article: Russian grammar

Russian has preserved an Indo-European synthetic-inflectional structure, although considerable levelling has taken place. Russian grammar encompasses:

The spoken language has been influenced by the literary one but continues to preserve characteristic forms. The dialects show various non-standard grammatical features,[citation needed] some of which are archaisms or descendants of old forms since discarded by the literary language.

The Church Slavonic language was introduced to Moskovy in late XV century and was adopted as official language for correspondence for convenience. Firstly with the newly conquered south-western regions of former Kyivan Rus and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, later, when Moskovy cut its ties with the Golden Horde, for communication between all newly consolidated regions of Moskovy.


This page from an "ABC" book printed in Moscow in 1694 shows the letter П.

See History of the Russian language for an account of the successive foreign influences on Russian.

The number of listed words or entries in some of the major dictionaries published during the past two centuries, and the total vocabulary of Alexander Pushkin (who is credited with greatly augmenting and codifying literary Russian), are as follows:[79][80]

Work Year Words Notes
Academic dictionary, I Ed. 1789–1794 43,257 Russian and Church Slavonic with some Old Russian vocabulary.
Academic dictionary, II Ed 1806–1822 51,388 Russian and Church Slavonic with some Old Russian vocabulary.
Dictionary of Pushkin's language 1810–1837 >21,000 The dictionary of virtually all words from his works was published in 1956–1961. Some consider his works to contain 101,105.[81]
Academic dictionary, III Ed. 1847 114,749 Russian and Church Slavonic with Old Russian vocabulary.
Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language (Dahl's) 1880–1882 195,844 44,000 entries lexically grouped; attempt to catalogue the full vernacular language. Contains many dialectal, local and obsolete words.
Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language (Ushakov's) 1934–1940 85,289 Current language with some archaisms.
Academic Dictionary of the Russian Language (Ozhegov's) 1950–1965
1991 (2nd ed.)
120,480 "Full" 17-volumed dictionary of the contemporary language. The second 20-volumed edition was begun in 1991, but not all volumes have been finished.
Lopatin's dictionary 1999–2013 ≈200,000 Orthographic, current language, several editions
Great Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language 1998–2009 ≈130,000 Current language, the dictionary has many subsequent editions from the first one of 1998.

History and examples[edit]

The history of Russian language may be divided into the following periods.

Judging by the historical records, by approximately 1000 AD the predominant ethnic group over much of modern European Russia, Ukraine and Belarus was the Eastern branch of the Slavs, speaking a closely related group of dialects. The political unification of this region into Kievan Rus' in about 880, from which modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus trace their origins, established Old East Slavic as a literary and commercial language. It was soon followed by the adoption of Christianity in 988 and the introduction of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic as the liturgical and official language. Borrowings and calques from Byzantine Greek began to enter the Old East Slavic and spoken dialects at this time, which in their turn modified the Old Church Slavonic as well.

The Ostromir Gospels of 1056 is the second oldest East Slavic book known, one of many medieval illuminated manuscripts preserved in the Russian National Library.

Dialectal differentiation accelerated after the breakup of Kievan Rus' in approximately 1100. On the territories of modern Belarus and Ukraine emerged Ruthenian and in modern Russia medieval Russian. They became distinct since the 13th century, i.e. following the division of that land between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Poland and Hungary in the west and independent Novgorod and Pskov feudal republics plus numerous small duchies (which came to be vassals of the Tatars) in the east.

The official language in Moscow and Novgorod, and later, in the growing Muscovy, was Church Slavonic, which evolved from Old Church Slavonic and remained the literary language for centuries, until the Petrine age, when its usage became limited to biblical and liturgical texts. Russian developed under a strong influence of Church Slavonic until the close of the 17th century; afterward the influence reversed, leading to corruption of liturgical texts.

The political reforms of Peter the Great (Пётр Вели́кий, Pyótr Velíkiy) were accompanied by a reform of the alphabet, and achieved their goal of secularization and Westernization. Blocks of specialized vocabulary were adopted from the languages of Western Europe. By 1800, a significant portion of the gentry spoke French daily, and German sometimes. Many Russian novels of the 19th century, e.g. Leo Tolstoy's (Лев Толсто́й) War and Peace, contain entire paragraphs and even pages in French with no translation given, with an assumption that educated readers would not need one.

The modern literary language is usually considered to date from the time of Alexander Pushkin (Алекса́ндр Пу́шкин) in the first third of the 19th century. Pushkin revolutionized Russian literature by rejecting archaic grammar and vocabulary (so-called "высо́кий стиль" — "high style") in favor of grammar and vocabulary found in the spoken language of the time. Even modern readers of younger age may only experience slight difficulties understanding some words in Pushkin's texts, since relatively few words used by Pushkin have become archaic or changed meaning. In fact, many expressions used by Russian writers of the early 19th century, in particular Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov (Михаи́л Ле́рмонтов), Nikolai Gogol (Никола́й Го́голь), Aleksander Griboyedov (Алекса́ндр Грибое́дов), became proverbs or sayings which can be frequently found even in modern Russian colloquial speech.

Reading of excerpt of Pushkin’s "Winter Evening" (Зимний вечер), 1825.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

Зи́мний ве́чер IPA: [ˈzʲimnʲɪj ˈvʲetɕɪr]

Бу́ря мгло́ю не́бо кро́ет, [ˈburʲə ˈmɡloju ˈnʲɛbə ˈkroɪt]

Ви́хри сне́жные крутя́; [ˈvʲixrʲɪ ˈsʲnʲɛʐnɨɪ krʊˈtʲa]

То, как зверь, она́ заво́ет, [ˈto kaɡ zvʲerʲ ɐˈna zɐˈvoɪt]

То запла́чет, как дитя́, [ˈto zɐˈplatɕɪt, kaɡ dʲɪˈtʲa]

То по кро́вле обветша́лой [ˈto pɐˈkrovlʲɪ ɐbvʲɪˈtʂaləj]

Вдруг соло́мой зашуми́т, [ˈvdruk sɐˈloməj zəʂʊˈmʲit]

То, как пу́тник запозда́лый, [ˈto ˈkak ˈputʲnʲɪɡ zəpɐˈzdɑlɨj]

К нам в око́шко застучи́т. [ˈknam vɐˈkoʂkə zəstʊˈtɕit]

The political upheavals of the early 20th century and the wholesale changes of political ideology gave written Russian its modern appearance after the spelling reform of 1918. Political circumstances and Soviet accomplishments in military, scientific and technological matters (especially cosmonautics), gave Russian a worldwide prestige, especially during the mid-20th century.

During the Soviet period, the policy toward the languages of the various other ethnic groups fluctuated in practice. Though each of the constituent republics had its own official language, the unifying role and superior status was reserved for Russian, although it was declared the official language only in 1990.[82] Following the break-up of the USSR in 1991, several of the newly independent states have encouraged their native languages, which has partly reversed the privileged status of Russian, though its role as the language of post-Soviet national discourse throughout the region has continued.

The Russian language in the world is reduced due to the decrease in the number of Russians in the world and diminution of the total population in Russia (where Russian is an official language). The collapse of the Soviet Union and reduction in influence of Russia also has reduced the popularity of the Russian language in the rest of the world.[36][83][84]

Recent estimates of the total number of speakers of Russian
Source Native speakers Native rank Total speakers Total rank
G. Weber, "Top Languages",
Language Monthly,
3: 12–18, 1997, ISSN 1369-9733
160,000,000 8 285,000,000 5
World Almanac (1999) 145,000,000 8          (2005) 275,000,000 5
SIL (2000 WCD) 145,000,000 8 255,000,000 5–6 (tied with Arabic)
CIA World Factbook (2005) 160,000,000 8

According to figures published in 2006 in the journal "Demoskop Weekly" research deputy director of Research Center for Sociological Research of the Ministry of Education and Science (Russia) Arefyev A. L.,[85] the Russian language is gradually losing its position in the world in general, and in Russia in particular.[83][86][87][88] In 2012, A. L. Arefyev published a new study "Russian language at the turn of the 20th-21st centuries", in which he confirmed his conclusion about the trend of further weakening of the Russian language in all regions of the world (findings published in 2013 in the journal "Demoskop Weekly").[36][89][90][91] In the countries of the former Soviet Union the Russian language is gradually being replaced by local languages.[36][92] Currently the number speakers of Russian language in the world depends on the number of Russians in the world (as the main sources distribution Russian language) and total population Russia (where Russian is an official language).[36][83][84]

The changing proportion of Russian speakers in the world (assessment Aref'eva 2012)[36][91]
Year worldwide population, million population Russian Empire, Soviet Union and Russian Federation, million share in world population, % total number of speakers of Russian, million share in world population, %
1900 1 650 138.0 8.4 105 6.4
1914 1 782 182.2 10.2 140 7.9
1940 2 342 205.0 8.8 200 7.6
1980 4 434 265.0 6.0 280 6.3
1990 5 263 286.0 5.4 312 5.9
2004 6 400 146.0 2.3 278 4.3
2010 6 820 142.7 2.1 260 3.8

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Based on a 2011 population of 7,706,400 (Central Bureau of Statistics of Israel)


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External links[edit]